Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Neuroanatomical Correlates of Self-Sabotage

I should be preparing for a Very Important Presentation at an upcoming meeting. But I'm not. I'm sitting at home on a Saturday night, blogging about self-sabotage.

"Self Sabotage is when we say we want something and then go about making sure it doesn't happen."

I do have a lot of clever ideas and useful data that are relevant for the meeting in question, I just haven't been able to start preparing my presentation yet. Am I afraid of failing? Angry at the complete lack of incentive structures at my workplace (which is organized and run in such a laughably inept manner as to be totally demotivating)?

Psychology of Self-Handicapping

What is behind the act of setting yourself up for failure, for unconsciously compiling a list of excuses for why you didn't perform at your best? What motivates this behavior?

It's an act of self-preservation, actually, to have external reasons for why you didn't achieve what you set out to accomplish. That way, you're not a complete and total failure as a person. It protects your fragile self-esteem, but this comes at a price.

Zuckerman and Tsai (2005) found the long-term costs of this strategy include a loss of perceived self-competence, negative mood, increased substance use, and a decline in motivation. Self-handicapping can be an effective strategy in the short-term, but eventually you'll suffer the consequences and end up a failure anyway.

Anatomy of Self-Handicapping

A group of Japanese researchers (Takeuchi et al., 2013) wanted to determine the neuroanatomical correlates of self-handicapping behavior, to see what sets this population apart from others. They used voxel-based morphometry (VBM) to quantify individual differences in brain anatomy across a large group of healthy students (94 men and 91 women). The participants were administered a Japanese version of the self-handicapping scale, along with assessments of self-esteem and depressive mood. The scale included questions like these (PDF):
  • When I do something wrong, my first impulse is to blame circumstances.
  • I always try to do my best, no matter what.
  • I tend to put things off until the last moment.
  • I would do a lot better if I tried harder.

Regional gray matter volumes (rGMV) were quantified in a whole-brain analysis and related to scores on the self-handicapping scale with age, sex, total brain volume, intelligence, self-esteem, and depression as covariates.

The major finding is that self-handicapping was positively correlated with rGMV in a portion of the subgenual cingulate gyrus (sgCG), or Brodmann area 25. This general area has been dubbed the "sad cingulate" by some, because it's the region targeted by deep brain stimulation for severe intractible depression by Helen Mayberg, Andres Lozano and colleagues (e.g., Riva-Posse et al. 2012).1

Fig. 1a (adapted Takeuchi et al., 2013). Anatomical correlates of self-handicapping tendency. The region of correlation is overlaid on a single subject T1 image rGMV in sgCG was correlated with individual self-handicapping tendency. Results are shown with P < 0.05 after correction for multiple comparisons at voxel-level FWE at the whole brain level.

The extent of this correlation did not differ between males and females (see fig below). No other regions showed positive or negative correlations with self-handicapping scores. It might seem a little implausible that the size of such a circumscribed area is the only one that correlated with the tendency for self-sabotage, but there you go.

Fig. 1b (adapted Takeuchi et al., 2013). Scatter plot of the relationship between the self-handicapping scale score and rGMV values at the peak voxel (x, y, z = −5, 11, −16). The blue line represents the regression line for males, while the red line represents that for females.

A counterintuitive aspect of this result stands in contrast with previous studies of depressed individuals, who show smaller rGMV in sgCG (Drevets et al., 2008). In the present study, higher self-handicapping was correlated positively with depression symptoms and negatively with self-esteem. But remember, this was a non-clinical population of 21 yr old students, not treatment-resistant patients with severe depression. In fact, it would be interesting to follow this population longitudinally, to see if continued use of self-handicapping tactics eventually wears down mood and sgCG volumes to pathologically low levels.

After a lifetime of self-sabotage, the fill-in-the-blank answer to...

"When I do something wrong, my first impulse is to _____"

...might change from "blame circumstances" to "blame myself for being such a miserable failure." When there's no self-esteem left, why try harder? What's the point?


1 However, the sgCG region in the present study seems inferior and posterior to the DBS target (Riva-Posse et al. 2012).


Drevets WC, Savitz J, Trimble M. (2008). The subgenual anterior cingulate cortex in mood disorders. CNS Spectr. 13:663-81.

Riva-Posse P, Holtzheimer PE, Garlow SJ, Mayberg HS. Practical Considerations in the Development and Refinement of Subcallosal Cingulate White Matter Deep Brain Stimulation for Treatment Resistant Depression. World Neurosurg. 2012 Dec 12. [Epub ahead of print]

Hikaru Takeuchi, Yasuyuki Taki, Rui Nouchi, Hiroshi Hashizume, Atsushi Sekiguchi, Yuka Kotozaki, Seishu Nakagawa, Carlos Makoto Miyauchi, Yuko Sassa, Ryuta Kawashima (2013). Anatomical correlates of self-handicapping tendency. Cortex doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2013.01.014

Zuckerman M, Tsai FF. (2005). Costs of self-handicapping. J Pers. 73:411-42.

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At February 10, 2013 12:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Failure is an event, not a state of being. Nobody is a failure, least of all you.

At February 10, 2013 1:20 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks. You'll be glad to hear that I have started working on my presentation. This will proceed more efficiently once I exit from Firefox...

At February 11, 2013 3:38 AM, Blogger Kaitlyn S. C Hatch said...

Really interesting. And slightly amusing that you took the time to write something so eloquent and well thought out rather than writing the other eloquent and well thought out thing you were meant to be doing. *grin*

At February 11, 2013 7:37 AM, Anonymous David Boulton said...

Coimplicate in all your examples of self-sabotage is the avoidance of shame. From self-deceptive self-talk to outright avoidance, self-sabotage is most often an emotionally intelligent way of managing shame that undermines the overall intelligence in our behaviors.

At February 11, 2013 9:39 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Kaitlyn S. C Hatch - Thanks for the kind words. I did actually make significant progress on that presentation yesterday.

David Boulton - That's a good point about being a shame-avoidance mechanism. I've been meaning to write about the Neuroanatomical Correlates of Shame, but I've felt under the weather lately. I haven't been getting enough sleep. There's too much noise. At home and at work. So I can't possibly concentrate...

At February 11, 2013 8:19 PM, Blogger Roger Bigod said...

This is one of your more hopeful posts, because the situation cries out for surgical management. The location looks challenging to approach with a craniotomy, but it might be possible to use a freezing probe, or maybe twirl a little blade around and cut the connections with the rest of the brain. Voila alpha males and females. Clearly worth a Nobel Prize.

At February 24, 2013 9:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How did your presentation go, Neurocritic? :)
Regarding self-sabotage, perhaps it's only the realization that every time you achieve something, every time you prove yourself to others, basically you are committed to maintaining that new level in the eyes of others. If you get a big grant, in a couple of years people at your place will expect you to get an even bigger one (or else, what the hell is wrong with Neurocritic?). And so on... Perfectly understandable, in my opinion.

At February 24, 2013 1:23 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Anonymous - It went well (I think), thanks for asking. It's true that the pressure to perform, whether internal or external, can be overwhelming.

At February 28, 2013 9:56 AM, Anonymous Eric said...

Hi, I was just curious if you knew any resources for people who have a bad case of self-handicapping. I can relate to the downward spiral that results from the cycle caused by self-handicapping tendencies and the resulting depressed moods. Thank you for your response!

At March 02, 2013 8:35 PM, Anonymous Gabriel said...

Please set Blogger to allow to subscribe to each post comments feed. Thanks.

At March 03, 2013 12:17 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Eric - There's a Psychology Today blog called Overcoming Self-Sabotage. There aren't a lot of posts and it hasn't been updated lately, but it might be one place to start.

There's also a Don't Delay (help for procrastination) blog. This post might be relevant: Delay as a Self-handicapping Strategy: I Can Protect My Self-image by Procrastinating?

Finally, you can find a number of resources on the topic at Psych Central.

At March 03, 2013 12:01 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Gabriel - I've added a "Subscribe to comments" link in the sidebar.

At March 03, 2013 12:20 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

And finally! I've added a "Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]" link in the footer of each post. So now readers can subscribe to all comments (see sidebar), comments on individual posts (see footer) and/or have follow-up comments e-mailed to a Google Account.

Thanks for your assistance, Gabriel.

At March 04, 2013 7:26 AM, Anonymous Gabriel said...

Great, thanks!


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